Friday, March 25, 2016

Victoria Stilwell Gets Seriously Bitten

Victoria Stilwell will not forget this serious bite.

Will she learn from it? If she does, will that be ironic?

Victoria Stilwell has been seriously bitten by a Malinois, and I hope she recovers soon.

Who is Victoria Stilwell?  She's a British dog walker who managed to convince the folks at Animal Planet that she was a "famous dog trainer" in the U.K., even as she told folks in the U.K. that she was a big deal in the U.S.

The reality here is actually more interesting than the lie.

It seems following the success of the Dog Whisperer television show, Animal Planet was desperate to come up with its own competitor.  Victoria Stilwell showed up and put herself out to them as someone who could fill the bill, even though she herself had little on-the-ground experience. Her actual claim to fame was not that she was an actual dog trainer, but that she walked 20 dogs a day (10 in the morning, and 10 in the afternoon!) in New York City -- the kind of experience that might get you hired as a part-time employee at PetSmart if you are lucky.

Stilwell eventually took a correspondence school dog training course, but she did not even own a dog herself, much less have any real world experience, when she showed up on Animal Planet's door.

What Ms. Stilwell lacked in knowledge, training, or experience, however, she made up for in intuitive marketing skills. Recognizing that Americans loved British accents, she coupled that accidental gift with a wardrobe of tight black jackets and pants. When paired with high heels and a sports car, she appeared to American audiences to be a kind of racy doggie dominatrix, albeit more feather than leather.

From the beginning, Stilwell's dog training advice has been weak, bordering on disaster. She screened canine clients, looking for relatively simple cases where commonsense advice could be paired with carefully edited video in order to make herself look at least marginally competent. She never did followups.

Things went well for a while, but then her screening failed, and she accidentally got a tough dog that she could not train.  Did she suggest another trainer, or try another method?  She did not.  Instead, she said the dog needed to be put down. After all, if she could not train the dog, no one could!

When folks began to note that Victoria Stilwell was no Barbara Woodhouse or Cesar Millan, she went ballistic, demonizing other trainers as "coercive" and "outdated" while presenting her own methods as new, science-based, and positive.

She, literally, screamed that she was the world's best dog trainer, and never mind if she had just arrived on the scene, and still did not own a dog.

So what has happened now?  

It seems Ms. Stilwell has gotten herself into trouble while putting together a show on police dogs.

The show has yet to premier, so I'm not sure if the police were supposed to show her how to train dogs, or the other way around.

But would it really matter either way?

This was reality TV, to be made on the cheap with just one camera.  However it went in the field, the video tape would be cut to make her look brilliant and brave, and the best anyone else could hope for was to look marginally competent.

Video tape of dogs and chases, bites and darkness, paired with emotional pathos and a shaky handheld camera would pass for entertainment.

How could the show not make a profit?  It couldn't!

And then Victoria Stilwell, got seriously bitten.  

She posted the following on Facebook yesterday:


The post is all self-pity and moaning misery due to the error of others.

But, of course, other people were there, and they tell a different story.

It seems Ms. Stilwell was more interested in getting a dramatic shot of a dog loading into a helicopter than she was in being safe.  Or at least that's what's being said by others who were there.

Of course, bad things happen to good people and to good dogs all the time.

Such is life.

To be clear, I am not happy Victoria Stilwell got seriously bitten.  I hope she heals up well and without complications.

This is, apparently, her first real dog bite, and no doubt a light bulb has gone off in her head:  This is what serious prey drive actually looks like.

These are the kinds of dogs that many real dog trainers work with every day -- not the neurotic Beagles, pampered Papillons, and adolescent Great Danes Ms. Stilwell lures into sit-stays with a piece of kibble.

For a Malinois, biting is self-rewarding behavior and food is a great deal less rewarding than a good grip on a struggling subject.


Though I take no joy in Victoria Stilwell's injuries, I am also reminded that hundreds of thousands of dogs have been needlessly sent to their death by the cult of click-and-treat dog trainers that she has crowned herself to lead.

Has she ever given a nod to the fact that balanced trainers, using methods she does not employ, save thousands of these canine lives every day?  She does not.

Victoria Stilwell will survive her bite.  

While she is recuperating, perhaps Ms. Stilwell will give some thought to the fact that the TV show she was putting together sought to glamorize police dogs.

Featured at its core is the Gwinnett County, Georgia Sheriff's Department canine unit. They are not being featured because they are the world's best canine unit, but because they are convenient to Ms. Stilwell's Atlanta home, and never mind the fact that the sheriff's office is under a federal investigation for excessive use of force and civil liberties violations.

Ms. Stilwell is a foreigner to our shores, so perhaps she should be forgiven for not being familiar with America's dogs of oppression, and their particularly nasty history in states like Georgia.

As I have noted in the past, a lot of police dogs are so poorly trained and managed that they are a jaw-dropping liability to most departments.

The whole idea of police dogs is from another era when we didn't have night vision, helicopters, or bean bag rounds.

Police dogs are waaay over sold and waaay under-trained. That is true all over. Throwing Victoria Stilwell into that mix, on both ends, is liking giving a Glock to a chimp.

So, while Ms. Stilwell recovers, I hope she wonders how many Americans are going to get seriously bitten by police dogs when some some fool wanna-be dog trainer ends up believing a cookie is going to be a bigger reward for a Malinois than a bite and a take down?

While she is recuperating, I hope she will wonder how many dogs will be needlessly killed at the pound because some fool watching her TV show has been lead to think that "death before discomfort" is a better trade-off than admitting that all the dog training tools need to be left on the table for competent professionals to use?

Finally, while she is at home recuperating, I hope she will come to terms with the fact that she will never forget the day that she was seriously bitten.

For the next few months, she will play the scenario over and over, in her head.

She will want to learn from this experience what not to do.

She will want to monumentalize how it happened, and what she must do to make sure it never happens again.

Yep, that's what adverse consequences do:  they teach.

Will Victoria Stilwell, learn that lesson?  

Time will tell.


PBurns said...

It was pointed out to me that a Facebook screen grab I got from someone else had another graphic buried inside it. What??? I went through the code, could not find it, and reposted again with another screen grab. Hopefully that fixed the issue -- seems so. Thanks to Dan G. for the heads up; the second picture did not show up on my two machines for some reason.

phoenixdogtraining said...

Good article.

Robyn Reed said...

I just rescue; not much training involved, but even I know that dogs need training and there are different kinds and if I DO get bitten (I have ER bills and scars) it was MY FAULT for not handling the dogs properly. I work with Jack Russells; they do not suffer fools gladly. Like a parent, accept the responsibility for any dog you are handling or working around.

Diane Gallagher said...

As her first response was to blame someone else, I doubt real learning is going to happen in the here and now. We can hope she grows from this experience and learns the value of adversives, but I'm waiting to see that happen. Kyna doubtful.

Excellent post, sir.

Donald McCaig said...

Well done.
Donald McCaig

Lainey said...

Not to disregard the point you are making about this trainer, but I am curious if you think there are some dogs that are just not 'right in the head ' for lack of a better term and should be put down ? or do you feel that aggressive behavior can usually be corrected with the right training?

PBurns said...

Yes, there are dogs with brain damage, same as with any animal, but it's quite rare. Most people will go a lifetime in dogs and never see such an animal. There are also dogs (more common) with deep congenital fear. These dogs can be helped, but they are difficult. What's amazing are the number of "basket case" and "red zone" dogs that are turned around with exercise, large pack large field work, and an ecollar paired with simple leash pressure and rewards. Most dogs are failed by their owners and by poor trainers, not by congenital mental defect.

Lainey said...

Thank you

Unknown said...

As an owner, you make a commitment to a living being. Part of that commitment is to avoid placing it in a precarious position where it is likely to fail/bite another person/animal. This lady's advice is superficial and her analysis I'll suited to deal with difficult dogs. At its core, dogs are hierarchical animals failure of the human to erect himself as the slpha in the dynamic can only turn out badly... Most problem dogs are owner problems. In this particular case, a trainer more intent on the shot than the relationship with the animal got bit... Maybe she should get a dog so she can walk the walk before talking the talk.

Unknown said...

Rather hard on chimps, I thought.

Eric Trujillo said...

Acording to operant conditionnement, punishment leads to diminishing o eliminating a conduct. So we hope she will tend to avoid trying to act as she knows what she is doing.
In my opinion there is no much difference between this women and Cesar Millan. He was just Opra's dog walker.

Bart Bellon or Michael Foulcolt those are dog trainers.

Lucu Lencia said...

In Victoria's defence she did say she wasn't handling or training the dog - she was just there as an observer. Apparently they asked her to sit in a helicopter and then they loaded the dog, who saw her there and immediately reacted by biting. So I don't see how the bite is her own fault, doesn't seem like she had any choices other than to refuse the offer to sit in the helicopter (to be honest I would have refused, I don't trust police dogs as far as I can throw 'em).

If operant conditioning using food / toy rewards isn't how to train a malinois then how are you meant to train them? I have a rescue malinois mix and I'd love to know what I should be doing since I always believed positive reinforcement (combined with negative punishment when necessary) was the best method of training?

PBurns said...

No defense of Ms. Stilwell is needed; she is not being accused of anything other than swimming in waters she does not understand.

Please read this post again and please talk to a real trainer of Malinois. I am a wee bit concerned.

You say you "don't trust police dogs" as far as you can throw them, and then you say you got a "rescue Malinois mix" (whatever that means). You clearly have not done the most basic research on the breed, nor do you know that for dogs like Malinois, biting can be a very self-rewarding behavior. Very bad things can happen to very good people when they wade into waters they do not understand. You are there. Please talk to a REAL dog trainer about what your dog needs and what you need to do to keep it safe. The dog deserves that. So do you.